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Sunday, 8 December 2013

Going to see Father Christmas

In the vast 'To Do' list that needs to be ticked off before the 25th December, taking the kids to see Father Christmas has to be quite a biggie. 

Before I begin, I must explain that I have a major hang up about the name 'Santa' - for me, the man sporting a big white beard in a red costume will always be Father Christmas and, until recently, I have attempted to boycott any imposter with another name. Sadly, the winds of change are against me and Father Christmas is, like the little English red Squirrel, soon to be eradicated from our shores by an American immigrant. For this reason, and also because it is quicker to type, I will use the name Santa for the rest of this blog. 

Last year we went to visit 'Santa in the Woods' at our local country park. We had high hopes due to the fact that I had given up three hours of my time trying to buy the damn tickets online on my 'phone at my in-laws. Plus they had cost us £12 per child. We didn't even want to take the younger one (harsh but true; she was only one, what would she have gotten out of it?)  but you were only allowed one adult per child's ticket purchased and we both wanted to go. £24 later, we were hoping for good things. 

It was nice (whether it was £24 worth of nice is up for debate) and it did last about 45 minutes. We walked through the park as some amateur actors staged a rather contrived pantomime-like story which involved a lost princess and some kind of bad guy. The kids seemed to love it, they got freebies along the way such as bubbles and sweets and everyone seemed pretty happy.

Until we got to the 'meeting Santa' part. Bearing in mind that we had already been wandering around outside for close to an hour, we then had to wait over 50 minutes in the cold whilst they took small groups into a large wooden hut to meet him. We had all been given a number and had to wait, meat-counter-style until our number was called. The part that really got my control freak nature's goat was the fact that the wet weekend of an elf calling out the numbers kept calling out the SAME NUMBERS every time! I was held in check for only so long by the admonitory look my husband was giving me before I had to ask him, "Do you not think they might have actually gone home?"

Then, and I can feel my blood pressure rising just remembering this, we had a situation where there was only one space left on the next sitting and the person with the next number (14) wanted to wait and go in at the same time as their friends (15). I tried, oh I really tried, not to interrupt them but after 7 minutes of listening to Dithery Dobby trying to reconcile this one with his clipboard, I couldn't cope any longer. I broke free from husband's restraining arm and screamed "Why don't we go in now and you can give my ticket (16) to them so that they can go in with their friends?"

Dobby just looked at me pityingly. "We have to go in number order Madam," he said. I wanted to stick my head in the cauldron of tepid mulled wine and leave it there until New Year. 

That year we also went to the classic shopping centre Santa. Quite a long queue but a surprisingly pleasant experience once inside the grotto. A happy little 3D video about the elves making the presents, a short wait to see Santa and a gift - all for free. Admittedly you were not allowed to take photographs and they attempted to fleece you with a snapshot for £8 on the way out. As my eldest child wasn't even looking at the camera and my youngest looked absolutely terrified, this was one expense we were spared. 

I have friends who wouldn't go anywhere else but to the big boys at Christmas: Harrods, Selfridges or Hamleys. However, as tickets for these more high-class Santas seem to sell out faster than a Barbra Streisand/One Direction double bill, you’d need to be a much better organised kind of mummy than this particular slacker. 

This year, quite by chance, we hit the Santa jackpot. We took W and S to RHS Hyde Hall for their children's Christmas festivities, assuming that this would be the usual visit to the excellent Craft Barn to make some Christmas decorations, some lovely cake and coffee for the grown-ups and then home. However, in the Visitor's Centre a Christmas story was advertised and we wandered in for the last sitting of the day.

The storyteller was fantastic. He held around 35 children of many different ages, and their parents, absolutely enthralled as he told them the story of how Santa Claus came to be. Then, and even I was genuinely surprised, the man of the season came knocking on the door.

And what a Santa he was. From his fluffy white eyebrows to his shiny black boots, he was every inch the real Saint Nicholas. He walked like Father Christmas, he talked like Father Christmas; to everyone in that room, even my humbug husband, he WAS Father Christmas.

He spoke to the children about Christmas traditions in the past, when children would be given an orange and a homemade toy. He asked them questions to find out what they knew: praising those that knew their history and rephrasing the more random responses (such as W's suggestion that they might have made lightsabers) so that they never felt silly. He then told them how he had been asked once what had been the greatest gift he had ever given. His inspired answer? The gift of imagination.

Afterwards he invited the children to come and speak to him. He said that there was no rush, he would stay until he had spoken to every child, and he was true to his word. He took the time to speak to every one of them for as long as they wished to about anything they wanted to say. Admittedly, this meant a long time waiting in a queue that never seemed to go down but, amazingly, no-one seemed to mind. I'm not sure if it was because we were in the warm, because we had just listened to a wonderful story or because we were all, adults and children alike, a little in awe of this wonderful man, but I didn't hear one word of complaint. I watched as child after child told him everything they wished for this Christmas. I overheard him giving them fatherly advice. To one boy who said he was struggling to learn to play the piano he said, "All that matters is that you get a little bit better every day." And that was it. No cheap plastic toy, no video screens, no allotted time slots. It was old school, it was low-tech, it was wonderful. 

When we got to the front, W became uncharacteristically shy. Santa Claus took his hand and asked him what he liked to play. Before long, they were having a lovely conversation about Star Wars and W told us afterwards that he must be the real Father Christmas because he "knew about everything". As we left, he shook our boy's hand and said, "Always stay away from the Dark Side, William." 

All in all, it was the perfect beginning to our Christmas festivities. For me, this was everything a trip to see Father Christmas should be about. The only tiny fly in the ointment was that he was in fact called Santa. But, hey, you can't have everything can y'all? 



Friday, 22 November 2013

Long Car Journeys

I have idyllic, probably rose-tinted, memories of long car journeys to Cornwall as a child. Being carried from my bed, half asleep, wrapped in a sleeping bag. Snuggled under a blanket in the back seat with my younger sister, eating car sweets, playing eye spy, singing along to my dad’s Beatles tapes and dozing off again, before waking up six hours later parked up at a Cornish beach. My husband has similar memories of holiday trips to Wales and recreating these journeys was something we looked forward to with our own children, starting our own little piece of family history.

The only problem is, this time we have to be the parents.

Firstly, it’s the packing up of the car and, however much you share domestic arrangements with your other half, for some reason it is always the mum’s job to pack for a holiday. Packing for yourself is one thing (I pride myself on having the capsule wardrobe thing down to a colour-coded art), but packing for your children when holidaying in the UK means trying to cover every possible eventuality.  Clothes for sunshine, rain, mud, heat, cold, snow, beach, playground, walking, going out to a nice restaurant (pause for ridiculing laughter) or possible alien invasion must be included. Then you have to decide which books and toys they are going to take. Do you risk their current favourites knowing this will make them happy but jeopardising your future happiness should they be lost? Do you allow them to take everything that they want to or try and restrict them to just a couple of items? After all, as ‘the mum’ it will be your job to try to sneak Thomas the Tank Engine and his 17 friends into an already packed car whilst your husband swears and mutters something about ‘it’s a one week holiday, we’re not bloody moving house’. Holidaying in the UK seems to turn men into their fathers, too.

Next item for debate, do you take food? Whilst we know that they do have supermarkets all over the UK, there is always the temptation to take ‘something for breakfast tomorrow’ or ‘a few essentials to start us off’ – five bags of shopping later and I have nowhere to put my feet when I get into the car. Snacks for the journey are a must. I spend at least 60% of the journey throwing sweets and crisps over my head in the hope that some of them hit the laps of the children behind.

One of the biggest differences for our children are the advent of car seats: an absolute necessity for car safety, but not half as much fun as making a duvet tent on the back seat and eating Smarties by torchlight. On the upside , we don’t have to deal with two children kicking seven bells out of each other under a blanket whilst we shout, “Don’t make me come back there!”

There have been many scientific advances in the last thirty years which make a long car journey easier on parents. Wet wipes, for example, are a huge advance on my mum’s damp flannel in a polythene bag which was as rough as sandpaper and smelt of sick. I also have no idea how parents coped on long journeys before the invention of the in-car DVD player or iPad. I’ve tried to play eye-spy with my children in a nostalgic nod to my car journeys of the ‘70s, but quite frankly it doesn’t cut it when compared with Angry Birds on the iPad or Peppa Pig on DVD. These devices are no longer a luxury item for a long car journey with kids. Put it this way, I don’t know any parents who have made the mistake of forgetting the in-car charger twice.

The fact that there is more traffic on the road now than there was then can also add to the stress of the journey. Encountering a traffic jam is never a pleasant experience but when you have two over-tired, sugar-fuelled children in the back seat, hitting traffic opens up a whole new world of pain. Also, this is usually the cue for the phrase that strikes panic into the heart of any travelling parent: “Mummy, I need the toilet.”

After cajoling, distracting and begging the full-bladdered child in question for as long as it takes to get to a service station, it can be quite annoying when you do get there and suddenly the urgency seems to have subsided as the supposedly ‘desperate’ child takes their time, wandering past the games machines, having a look in the shop window, maybe even climbing onto the massage chair. Other users of the coffee lounge look at me askance as I scream, “Do you need to poo or not?”

The part that really makes me realise that I am now the mum is the very last leg of the journey. Whilst husband and I generally share the driving on a long car journey, as we approach our destination there is an unwritten rule, for the sake of our marriage, that husband drives and I navigate. This is because I need more warning to turn right than, “This right! This right! This right!  . . . . Oh, you’ve missed it.” Once, after a particularly horrendous Sat Nav re-routing, we found ourselves at 2am down a boggy track in Yorkshire, in torrential rain, having to reverse the car for about two miles. Even husband said it was the moment he wished his dad was there to do it instead.

When, with relief, you realise you have actually found your holiday destination, it dawns on you that the end is not yet in sight. Looking back at your sleeping children, you realise that,  as the parents, it is up to you to locate the hidden key, work out how to open the door, make up the beds and carry your, hopefully still sleeping, children into bed. Then you have to go back outside and unpack the car, work out how to use the heating controls and check that you haven’t forgotten the toilet paper, before you can finally make yourself a cup of tea and collapse onto the sofa.

Because that’s what it means to be the parents on a holiday journey; you are the ones with whom the buck stops. It is as this sinks in, that I find myself awash with nostalgia for 1978, a sleeping bag on the back seat of a Ford Cortina and a wet flannel in a polythene bag.

Thanks Mum and Dad x


Tuesday, 12 November 2013

Hosting a Sunday Lunch

Next time I invite friends for Sunday lunch, I am going to ask my children to do the following.

When you see me opening and closing the oven door, whilst trying to select a flattering yet casual outfit and simultaneously throwing any stray toys/shoes/dirty plates into the cupboard under the stairs, I would like you to:

1.       Find a food or drink that stains and spill it down yourself. Timing is key for this one, you must wait until you’ve just been changed into your ‘nice’ clothes. You may well be still in your pyjamas ten minutes before the guests arrive, but don’t be tempted to do the spilling too early.


2.       Tip a whole box of craft materials onto the floor of the kitchen, preferably the really small shiny stuff that it is impossible to vacuum or sweep up and must be picked up, individually, with fingertips.


3.       Decide that you both want to play with the same toy and fight over it relentlessly. (Remember that this one is even more effective if the toy in question is a baby toy that you’ve just found behind the sofa and that neither of you has shown any interest in for the previous 12 months.)


4.       When you tire of this, find a toy that has a million tiny pieces (jigsaw puzzles work well here, or any kind of play set which includes tiny figures) find that one piece is missing and cry/whinge until someone helps you to find it.


When the guests arrive:

1.       Don’t share any of your toys with the visiting children, particularly if the visiting child is asking you very nicely, with impeccable manners and offers to share their own toys in exchange.


2.       Refuse to eat any dinner, demanding chicken nuggets or similar.


3.       During dinner repeat “Why can’t we watch a DVD while we have dinner like we usually do?” ad infinitum.


When they follow these instructions to the letter, I will be able to smile proudly, in the knowledge that I am an Alpha Mother whose children obey my every command. No longer will I be crying into the washing up that no-one listens to a word I say.

If, on the other hand, they revert to type and do the exact opposite from my requests, I will be able to relax and have a lovely afternoon as my guests look on in envy at my perfect children.

Either way, I win.

Saturday, 9 November 2013


“To sleep: perchance to dream”                Hamlet Act 3 Scene 1

“To sleep: chance would be a fine bloody thing.”              Emma Robinson 2003

 Most nights in the Robinson household are a game of musical beds. We all start off in the right beds but, by the morning, there is no telling who will be where.

Take last night. Husband and I went to bed about 10:30. At around 2:30am W appeared beside the bed, I lifted the quilt and he climbed in. Roughly an hour later, S cried out and I went and got in bed with her. 6:00am, husband got out of bed and went to work. I got back into my bed with W for an hour until our alarm buzzed at 7.00am and we all got up.

Sometimes, we move around on nocturnal autopilot, to the extent that you can’t actually remember what went on under cover of darkness. A couple of weeks ago I went to bed with my husband and woke up with my son. When I asked husband in the morning where he had spent the night, he looked at me blankly trying to remember. Five years ago, that may have been grounds for divorce.

Sleep is a very contentious issue and a subject, like religion and politics, which is best left undiscussed amongst friends. Many of my friends have very strong opinions on how, where and when children should sleep and would take a very dim view of my haphazard attitude. What can I say? I freely admit that I am too weak for controlled crying, too selfish for full on co-sleeping and too damn disorganised for a regimental bedtime routine. Actually, that’s a lie. I rarely admit to anything.

For these sins, I will be consigned to a broken night’s sleep for many years to come. I have read a wealth of books on the subject of children and sleep: searching for the magic formula which will mean my children will sleep all night, in their own beds, but I will not have to listen to them cry. Reluctantly, I am realising that such a formula does not exist. Well-meaning friends have told me that they will sleep better once they are walking, have all their teeth, have started school. For my little insomniacs, however, none of these lifestyle changes seem to make any difference whatsoever.

I am very fortunate to have a wonderful mother who often has my children for a sleepover so that I can catch up on a few sleep cycles. This reduces my zombie-like demeanour to something approaching normality. I start to be able to function normally, even managing to answer difficult questions such as ‘Do you take sugar in your tea?’ within 20-30 seconds.

Perhaps there is a subconscious reason that I have never managed to fully resolve their nocturnal shenanigans. As, despite the fact that I would dearly love a few night’s uninterrupted sleep, when I wake up in the morning with my son’s arms linked around my neck, or my daughter’s fingers twisted into my hair, I know that they won’t be climbing into bed with me forever and I cherish the moment. As they grow, the time they will want to spend cuddling with their mummy will decline. One day I will wish for these days to return, sleepless nights and all. Sometimes I hold the moment, breathe in their still baby-like smell and squeeze them tight in an effort to commit this feeling to my emotional memory bank.

Then I pack them an overnight bag for Nana’s house.

Tuesday, 29 October 2013

Getting ready to go out.

I am getting ready to take my children out for the day. This involves:

1.       Getting myself showered and dressed whilst shouting “Leave your sister alone!”, “Give it back to him!” and “What are you doing?” at the top of my voice every two minutes or so. (Sometimes not in response to any particular crisis but just to make sure that I’ve covered all bases.)

2.       Trying to encourage a whinging W (four year old son) to dress himself as his limbs seems to have developed some kind of semi-catatonic floppiness, rendering him unable to do something as simple as pull a jumper over his head.

3.       Fighting with S (two year old daughter) over what she is going to wear. Something coordinated and warm (my choice) or something featuring an asinine Disney character, one Wellington boot and a sandal (her choice.)

4.       Pack a bag to take with us.

Now, this is the part where it gets difficult. I remember when packing a bag meant car keys, a lipstick and a credit card. Nowadays it’s more like the preparations Edmund Hillary might have undertaken before attempting to conquer Everest.

Firstly, there are the basics. Mobile telephone, car keys and money. There is the usual opening of my purse which is found to contain nothing except 24 loyalty cards, a bunch of crumpled receipts and about 27p in small coins. This results in frantic search of the kitchen drawer, key bowl and husband’s trouser pockets (I’ve warned him) for anything bigger than a 20p piece.

Secondly, provisions: beakers of juice, boxes of raisins and packets of mini cheddars. Plus, depending on the length of car journey, packets of Haribo and lollipops. Initially, my natural slacker tendencies meant I didn’t bother to pack snacks. However, watching my children begging more well-prepared mothers for a mini-breadstick has guilted me into it.

Thirdly, equipment for car journey and in case weather means you have to spend more than ten minutes in a cafĂ©: books, toys which don’t contain small, loseable pieces and any handheld electronic device which stores videos of children’s programmes.

Lastly, spare pairs of trousers, socks, tops and, if potty training, knickers/pants. Nappies, wipes, nappy bags, cream and, depending on season and time of day, sunscreen and insect repellent.

Then there is the choice of bag to carry these items. Hitherto, I have resisted the purchase of a mahoosive ‘mum’ bag, preferring instead to cram everything I can into my largest available handbag. Admittedly, this has resulted in some rather nasty spillage and sticky lolly incidents, but I remain resolute in my determination to look like a woman and not a packhorse.

After all that, we attempt to leave the house and, after the inevitable last minute need to use the toilet (Son), change a nappy (daughter), cram three biscuits in your mouth at once because you suddenly remember you have not had breakfast (me), we finally do.

And, as we go, I mutter the mantra I have been uttering for the last four years: “Tomorrow, let’s just stay at home.”

Thursday, 22 August 2013


The hot potato, if you’ll pardon the pun, in the Robinson household these last few months has been the subject of food.

After successfully weaning my son on lovingly-prepared purees into the unfussy, fruit loving, healthy eater that he is now, I assumed that I would repeat the same process with my daughter and get the same result. Therefore, I dutifully waited until Scarlett was six months old, dusted off my Annabel Karmel cookbook, bought in a truckload of organic vegetables and got ready to fill and freeze the new set of plastic pink pots I had bought for her.

Day one, carrot puree, went well and I was feeling confident. Day Two and she wasn’t keen on the carrot so I switched to apple, to be met with the same slightly bored refusal to let me anywhere near her mouth with a plastic spoon. I knew from reading up on weaning that you sometimes have to offer a child the same food up to fourteen times before they will accept it, so at this point I wasn’t too concerned. She was still happily drinking breast milk and I comforted myself in the knowledge that she was still getting all the nutrients that she needed from that.

Two weeks later and I started to feel a little stressed. It’s amazing what an emotive subject food can be. My husband’s common-sense “She’ll eat when she’s hungry” attitude was doing nothing to calm my overwhelming need to see my daughter eat something.

Because my son had taken to solid food so easily, I had no idea what to do when faced with a child that didn’t want to eat. I started to ask anyone I knew how they had approached making this transition from milk to food. Several friends suggested trying baby-wed leaning – where you give a child of six months finger food rather than purees and let them feed themselves. Many people seemed to swear by it, saying how easy it was to just give their child the same as they were eating for dinner and let them get on with it. Scarlett’s response to baby-led weaning was to look me straight in the eye as she dropped the carrot sticks over the side of the high chair one by one. She did seem to like the fusilli pasta in tomato sauce and almost ate her own hand she was stuffing it in her mouth so fast. I almost wept with joy until ten minutes later when she threw the whole lot up again. And it was still whole.

At one point I thought I'd found a winning technique for feeding Scarlett: distracting her by dancing to Dexy's Midnight Runners on the radio and shovelling the food in. To my disappointment, I discovered that during my world famous double spin to 'Come on Eileen' she was surreptitiously spitting the food into her lap.

Then we found the golden goose – spaghetti hoops. She loves ‘em. Anytime, day or night and she will find room. She also stole a chicken nugget – sorry chicken goujon – from her brother’s plate and had a good chew on that. Before I knew where we were she was also partial to an oven chip and the odd bit of breadstick dipped in dairylea.

I will admit I didn’t wholly embrace the fact that my daughter would only eat the kind of foods I hadn’t let William anywhere near until way past his first birthday. However, a friend who had visited a dietician with her son when he was a picky eater had been told to ‘feed them whatever they like as long as they’re eating.’ So I did.

Yet again I have realised that most of the things I worry myself to a frazzle about with my children seem to sort themselves out over time. Six months on and she is eating a much wider range of food, although she still doesn’t eat as many vegetables as I would like. Her particular favourites at the moment are scrambled egg and peas, not necessarily together, and of course, her beloved spaghetti hoops. I’m sure she’ll be serving those up to the guests at her wedding.


As we still do not have a working shower, and I cannot spend another week wearing a hat to baby group to cover my greasy hair, I made the foolish decision to attempt to have a bath whilst both children were awake and husband was at work.

Leaving them both downstairs, I snuck upstairs to run the bath. Running bath water is like the call of a Siren to my children and I barely had enough bathwater to cover my fingernails before both appeared at the door attempting to pull their Pyjamas off. (Yes I know it was 10am but if I dress them more than 5 minutes before we leave the house they will find something to drop, dash or dribble down themselves before you can say Ariel Liquitabs.)

I’m all for the idea of a parent sharing a bath with their children, but the grim reality of this bonding experience is that you have to sit in a tepid, shallow bath surrounded by enough plastic toys to fill an aisle at Toys R Us. As this wasn’t what I had in mind, I firmly told them that this bath was for mummy. When S threw herself to the floor and screamed and W decided to follow suit in an expression of ‘one-out, all-out’ solidarity, I relented and told them that they could get a couple of plastic cups and splash mummy while she was in the bath. Big mistake.

Imagine if you will, Cleopatra reclining in a bath of asses milk whilst two beautiful handmaidens gently lap the warm liquid over her submerged body. Whispering softly, playing a couple of notes on nearby harp and generally pandering to her every whim.

Now imagine these handmaidens shrunk to 60cm in height, shrieking at the tops of their voices and drunk on the power that Cleopatra cannot actually reach them anytime soon. Cleo, her eyes full of shampoo because she is too frightened to wash her hair with both eyes closed, trying to grab the squirty penguin filled with ice cold three-day old bathwater wielded by one handmaiden and the plastic spoon used to flick today’s soapy bath water into her eyes with a surprising-level of accuracy (Gifted and Talented maybe?) by the other. 

The upshot of it is, I won’t be attempting to have a bath during daylight hours again anytime soon. I need to ensure I have a bath before bed every night from now on. Either that or I need to invest in a few more dirty hair-covering hats.